Civil War field music: fifes and drums

Drum Corps of the 93rd New York Infantry, photo taken in August of 1863 near Bealton, Virginia.

Military music during the American Civil War was a blend of old and new instruments and ensembles.

Brass bands like the 26th North Carolina Regiment Band or the 1st Brigade Band, Wisconsin represented fairly recent instrumental combinations.

The bugle was also a recent invention. Fife and drum bands, on the other hand, reached their heyday in the Revolutionary War and saw their last military action in the Civil War.

The United States Marine Band was established by an Act of Congress in 1798. Don’t be thinking John Philip Sousa just yet. The original band comprised 32 fifers and drummers. An army school of music established in 1809 trained fifers and drummers as young as 12 years old.

In fact, the youngest person ever awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor was an 11-year old drummer with the 3rd Vermont Volunteer Infantry named Willie Johnston. He received it in 1863 for bravery during the Seven Days Battles.

Fife and drums played the same role in the Civil War as they had in previous wars. They served both in the camp and the field as signaling instruments.

While the wind band, if any, might be on the battlefield playing music to cheer the troops, the shrill fifes served to relay orders. In the noise and smoke of battle neither hand signals nor verbal orders were of any use.

By the end of the war, though, the bugle proved even more suitable as a signaling instrument. It was less shrill, but louder. Its sound carried farther and was less likely to blend in with battle sounds. The fifes continued to sound reveille, lights out, and other signals in camp.

The following video contains a massed fife and drum corps from Virginia and a single pair of fife and drum from New York.

Fifes and Drums of America: The American Revolution to the Civil War
The Civil War Fife and Drum Page
Photo credit: Civil War Fife and Drum Page

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